Iran, said President Carter on New Year’s Eve in 1977, “is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.” It didn’t take long for this confident avowal to prove erroneous. Just over a year later, Iran’s shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, would be forced into exile, with a clutch of hysterical mullahs led by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini taking his place. Iran’s vaunted stability turned out to be a mirage, and the Islamic revolution has been a source of trouble in the region ever since.
A little more than 40 years later a similar conviction has taken hold regarding the staying power of the regime seated in Tehran. This fashionable fatalism claims that, whatever its problems or the designs of its enemies, the Islamic republic is here to stay.
But there is ground for skepticism about this reigning complacency, and not only because the stability of an autocratic government is fiendishly difficult to gauge. There are unmistakable signs of fatigue and fragility roiling the Islamic republic today. For starters, the paralysis gripping the economy as a result of chronic mismanagement, the diversion of resources, and onerous sanctions is causing acute distress among average Iranians. The tenacious political demonstrations that have been rising in the face of lethal violence from the authorities reveals both the determination of the opposition and the cruelty of Iran’s rulers. Even in the aftermath of the targeted U.S. strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s extraterritorial Quds Force and adjutant to the Supreme Leader, the people have not significantly rallied behind the clerics. To the contrary, they have been given fresh occasion to see clearly the nature of a regime whose Revolutionary Guard incites aggression, recklessly shoots down a civilian airliner, and then literally attempts to bulldoze the evidence.
All of this suggests that the affairs of Iran are drawing rapidly to an eventful crisis. Observers reconciled to the endurance of the Islamic republic might want to reconsider their determinism before history passes them by.
In the turbulent life of the Islamic republic, it has not been foreign meddling by outside powers but domestic insurrection that has posed the greatest threat to its rule. Recalling the revolt across Iran in June 2009 may be instructive here. Here was more proof that it was not a “regime change war” (with apologies to Tulsi Gabbard) that nearly felled the Islamic republic, but the vox populi. No less a figure than Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei later admitted that during the Green revolution the regime suffered a near-death experience.
Back then, pro-democracy protests had engulfed the country after the regime in Tehran engineered a crude voting exercise that flouted the elementary standards of a “free and fair” contest. (No one with the faintest understanding of Iran’s government—and its totalitarian doctrine of clerical control known as velayat-e faqui—could bring himself to credit this charade, or the alternately credulous and cynical response of the Obama White House that treated the “result” with deference.) The peaceful uprising was viciously suppressed by the regime’s Revolutionary Guard units, including the fearsome Basij paramilitary force, but not before a bravura display of people power by Iranians chafing under theocratic rule.
One decade later, it seems that the 2009 Green movement was a dress rehearsal for a larger and more lingering confrontation between Iranians and the mullahs who oppressed them for four decades.
This past November, protests erupted in several cities across the country in response to abrupt government increases in fuel prices. The demonstrations called for a swift end to the Islamic republic, and were vigorously put down by rulers accustomed to meting out violence to peaceful protesters. According to credible accounts, hundreds and perhaps more than a thousand Iranians were killed for the offense of raising their voices against the regime. Thousands more have been detained and tortured.
At first, this ferocious crackdown gave every appearance of having worked as intended. The demonstrations disappeared and the regime’s security apparatus came off high alert by mid-December. It seemed as if the status quo had survived intact. Then, in January, many stories appeared in the Western media suggesting that the Iranian people were broadly united behind the mullahs—a supposedly monolithic nation in mourning for Soleimani. Press coverage of the mass funeral procession for the fallen commander offered little skepticism about the meaning of such a highly orchestrated event in an authoritarian state.
So imagine the surprise when Iran’s protests reignited last week. The backward and brutal regime has imposed martial law to thwart memorial services for the victims of the recent repression. For the ayatollahs, all this domestic turbulence has come at an inauspicious time when popular discontent with the Islamic republic—and its corrupt and violent proxy and surrogate political forces—has reached a boil from Baghdad to Beirut. This tense domestic situation will not be allayed by the show of force from China, Russia, and Iran, all holding joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Oman. Nor does it seem that, after the death of Soleimani, the Iranian street has been fooled by the regime’s “face-saving” gesture of lobbing rockets toward coalition bases in Iraq without harming any U.S. or Iraqi forces.
The persistent nature of this inchoate anti-regime movement—this revolution against the revolution—suggests something other than a revolt rooted solely in severe economic hardship. Whatever the misery inflicted by the combined weight of excessive government debt (ballistic missile development doesn’t come cheap) and punitive U.S. sanctions, the scale and resilience of the demonstrations gripping Iran suggest a more thorough repudiation of a regime characterized by superstition, reaction, and transnational violence. The Islamic revolution of 1979 finds itself under siege today by would-be revolutionaries who have not only challenged its economic mismanagement but also its very political legitimacy.
The late scholar Bernard Lewis liked to note a curious phenomenon in the Middle East: Pro-American regimes that were dictatorial often had anti-American populations, but anti-American regimes like Iran had pro-American populations. This certainly looked true in 2009 when the Iranian masses cried out for the explicit support of the American president, to no avail. How the U.S. government responds to the new protests and the likely crackdown against them may be even more consequential than its recent action in the skies over Baghdad.
The observers who consider Iran’s regime resilient beyond measure believe a revolution against it holds so little hope that its potential scarcely deserves mentioning, let alone supporting. These fatalists contend that the Iranian regime, like a cornered animal, is most dangerous when cornered, and therefore the wisest course is almost endless conciliation. The alternative, this argument runs, is a policy of mutual confrontation in which Iran’s Revolutionary Guard lashes out and turns the region into a cauldron of violence and terror.
The trouble with this argument is that it does not account for the violence and terror the regime has already inflicted across the region, and will continue to inflict. But with sanctions beginning to bite down hard and the Iranian masses inflamed against their bellicose but exposed regime, now may be the time for those who blithely assume the stability of the Islamic republic to ask themselves the breathless question: What if they are wrong?